As a leader, you know that keeping your employees healthy is essential for the productivity and profitability of your business. However, you may not know exactly how to improve your company culture and create a healthy workplace. The truth is that some corporate wellness programs are very successful, and others aren’t, and it typically comes down to the initial planning and the execution. This post explores how to design a successful corporate wellness program based on collaborative research from the Transamerica Center for Health Studies and John Hopkins School of Public Health.

  • How can you create an evidence-based program that addresses the specific needs of your employees?
  • What are some common pain points when designing wellness programs?
  • What pitfalls should leaders avoid completely?

You might identify with the following 3 statements:

  1. You’re skeptical about workplace wellness and cannot envision how it can fit into your company culture or team dynamic
  2. You’ve tried unsuccessfully to launch a corporate wellness program and you’re hesitant to try again
  3. Beyond step challenges and healthier vending machine snacks, you’re not sure what other programs or activities might be best for your team

To provide the most comprehensive advice, in combination with my own experience, I referenced From Evidence to Practice: Workplace Wellness that Works. I recommend reading that report and using it as a framework for your programs.

Categories for corporate wellness programs:

  • Physical activity
  • Healthy Nutrition and Weight Management
  • Tobacco Cessation
  • Stress Management
  • Clinical Preventive Screenings and Biometric Assessments (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.)
  • Diabetes Management
  • Sleep
  • Social Connectedness
  • Alcohol Management

Summary of successful pillars of corporate wellness programs:

  • The strongest programs are those that create a culture of health that intertwines individual health promotion efforts with the overall company goals and objectives
  • Leadership engagement and commitment is key to long-term program success
  • All programs must be voluntary, non-discriminatory and must be reasonably likely to promote health or prevent disease and protect the confidential health information of employees

Let’s break these down further.

Avoid these mistakes when designing a corporate wellness program:

Only administering health risk assessments – I worked as a health educator for a global hospital and part of that work involved traveling to different worksites to administer their annual employee health risk assessments. This was during their open enrollment insurance season when companies were aiming to lower their insurance costs by showing that they made efforts to improve their workers’ health. However, upon speaking with the staff, many of whom were very interested in improving their health, it was clear that that annual health assessment was the only time of year that the employers took the health of their staff seriously. Many staff had been working at these companies for years and attended every health screening, but they had little to show by way of progress or lifestyle change. This was because once the assessment was over, things returned to business as usual.

Only administering health risk assessments and not creating a culture of health year-round does not work. Undoing years of the effects of a sedentary lifestyle cannot be undone in a one-day health screening event or by filling out a health questionnaire.

Paying people to change – While money is often hyped as a motivation, paying people to change their habits can do more harm than good. Money often encourages shortcuts or dangerous methods like dehydration or low caloric intake in order to win. Also, money is a short-term result and people may be less focused on the long-term health benefits because doing what it takes to win money is more appealing.

Short-term campaigns – Although popular and easy to promote, Biggest Loser challenges, step challenges and other one-off acts of wellness are not effective long-term. These random acts of wellness promote quick fixes and deadlines for change as opposed to promoting sustainable success.

Sending links to the company website – Posting links to the insurer’s website is helpful but it does not replace a well thought out wellness program. The information written for the insurance website is generalized to reach the greatest number of plan holders and it often includes more links that can take you on a journey of website jumping looking for information that would be better distributed in a specific program offered by each individual company.

Consider these guidelines for a successful corporate wellness program:

Leadership must be engaged and supportive – Any successful program begins with commitment and engagement from you and your team leads. This includes participation in the activities and integrating health into the company’s overall vision and mission.

Build a culture of health – A culture of heath is created intentionally by integrating health into every business practice, company policy and everyday work activities. This holistic approach means offering flexible work schedules, prioritizing psychological safety, helping staff set reasonable health goals and providing social support (to name a few!).

Frequently ask for help – Leaders can show commitment to employees’ health by regularly asking for feedback, conducting surveys and having an ‘open door’ policy of sharing ideas for health programs. You can also create a committee or employee resource groups of staff who can serve as the voice for sharing ideas, feedback and needs. And don’t forget about ways to involve social circles outside of work – parents, friends, children and spouses can participate or have access to the information to help staff stay engaged and cultivate work-life synergy.

Communicate clearly – Employees cannot participate in programs they know nothing about – this is where the strategic communications team can help. Spreading the word of the programs is a matter of clear messaging: this is what it does, this is when it is, here’s what’s in it for you, ways to get involved, etc. Clear messaging can boost interest, reduce skepticism about company motivations and ensure that everyone is aware that such programs exist.

Offer smart and holistic incentives – This goes beyond monetary prizes and health metrics to incentives such as bragging rights during healthy competitions and the camaraderie amongst the teams, being more productive and having increased energy, and being able to enjoy work in an environment that supports health goals: bike racks, onsite fitness facilities, brightly lit and safe stairwells as an alternative to the elevators, walking meetings, etc.

The research shows that when done right, workplace wellness programs can improve the health of employees, reduce healthcare costs and produce a positive return on investment – a win-win for you and your team.

Contact me to learn more about how to integrate yoga and mindfulness in your employee wellness programs.